She died on Valentine’s Day 2016. This is a letter I wrote to her on what would have been her 65th birthday:
Happy Birthday, Mom!
Were you still here, you’d be 65 today. Were you still around, I would tell you that my kids are doing great and so am I.
I would tell you that, after your death, the family let me in on how incredibly sick you were. Borderline Personality Disorder, Bi-Polar Disorder, and an opioid addiction for far longer than I ever supposed. After your passing, we found your journals. You never could throw anything away, so we ended up with years of material to go through. We found the journals highlighting how selfish and self-centered and unloving you thought we were. We found the suicide plan that included taking me with you.
I read through those journals and learned for the first time that the summer trips to Disneyland to see Auntie and Uncle were really due to you being checked into a mental institution. I read through those journals and saw how little you were interested in changing. In fixing any of it.
I read through those journals and understood that there was nothing anyone could have done to show you that you were loved or worthy of love. There was no way to convince you that life was worth living.
I read through your journals and realized that my dream of making you proud, of doing something that you recognized as special and telling me about it was just the dream of a little Momma’s boy. A pipe dream that could never be realized.
I just wanted you to be proud of me. Instead of assuming I was ashamed of your weight, or your perm, or your teeth, etc… I wanted you to realize that all of my accomplishments were made for you. In the way that you thought it should be done because I deeply respected your opinion out of my love for you. I thought that I could exemplify what I thought you wanted in life to give you a reason to live. To try.
I may not have known the extent of your troubles when I was younger, but I had enough of an idea to know that you needed other people to make you feel better. You weren’t capable of doing it yourself. I saw that in action growing up all the time, but was too young to understand the depth and complexity of your issue. I played the class clown at home, trying to make you laugh and smile. Trying to make you happy.
I spent the majority of my adult life angry with you. Angry because you wouldn’t recognize any changes in me. Angry because you wouldn’t strive for change in yourself. Every conversation had to deal with the latest doctor’s appointment and what prescriptions you were on before devolving into you crying and apologizing for being fat and worthless and unlovable. It made me so incredibly angry, at everyone, to have you constantly turn every conversation in that way.
That’s why I had to stop talking to you. Decades of effort, of telling you exactly what you needed to do to keep our relationship open: “Quit making it about you.” “Don’t cry about how fat you are with me.” “Get up and take a walk.” “Stop smoking.” And, in your (at the time) odd and childlike way, you refused. So I did what I thought best and ghosted you.
Three bright and beautiful children, nine successful years in the Marine Corp, a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics in three years, a 20 year strong relationship with my high school sweetheart. I did these things for you.
I didn’t realize that’s what I had done at the time. But hearing that you had lied to the family about how often we spoke. How you never told anyone that I stopped talking to you for two full years. You lied to your daughter and your sister and your pastors.
And then I read your journals. I found out the depth to which your prescription addiction went. The depth to which your issues with personal identity went. The depth to which your mental health issues went.
In short, I realized that the person I grew up knowing as Mom was not who you were at all.
I realized that the person I had loved and cherished and tried so hard to please was nothing more than a figment of the families collective imagination. A part of their religious upbringing. Good Southern Baptists don’t give up on members of the fold. Even if it means ignoring the drug abuse, ignoring the mental health issues, and lying to the kid about his own mother.
I realized that my foundation, my childhood, my mother, was all a lie. I grew up trying to be everything you wanted me to be but that was just a tool. A tool like your pills and your therapists. Someone to use and/or throw away, whichever was most convenient for you at the time.
At 33, this was a hard pill to swallow. It felt like the wool had been held over my eyes for my whole life and was just now being taken off. The harsh light of reality nearly blinding me.
No longer does it make sense for me to be angry all the time. No longer does it make sense for me to do things for you. No longer does it make sense for me to do things to spite you, for that matter.
What does make sense, however, is why all of my friends were so bad for me. I kept choosing people who reminded me of you: selfish addicts with mental health issues and long standing histories of manipulating everyone around them. It started to make sense why, even though I was going through all the right motions, getting the promotions, greasing the right wheels, making the right moves, I couldn’t find rest, satisfaction, or relaxation. The anger never left, no matter how many successes I racked up. Happiness began to feel like a foreign concept to me. I had to be angry to feel anything at all.
And then it all started to come together. My entire sense of satisfaction as a person, even a person with a wife, kids and career, hinged on your opinion of me. And I didn’t even realize it until after you were gone.
How could I ever be happy if you couldn’t be happy? That was something you ingrained in me from a young age, and it stuck around. Not understanding how sick you were, I internalized all of your beliefs (even the bad ones) and they became the core of who I am, who I was. It was only after your death that I began to realize how far off base my world view was.
I took your death as a sign to make the positive changes in my life that you wouldn’t make in yours.
I’ve cut out a number of toxic relationships (most of which were predicated on our relationship) from my life. This has made my overall outlook on life better by taking away people who would steal my success and happiness for themselves, replacing it with fear, anger, self-doubt, anxiety. All the emotions that remind me of my childhood with you.
Through diet change and exercise, I’ve managed to lose more than 20 pounds and 6% of body fat. I’ve also managed to keep the weight off for a year and a half now.
I’m working on more creative pursuits as well. I’m no longer afraid of enjoying the act of writing because of how much like you it made me feel.
I’m no longer afraid to see a therapist for fear that I will manipulate them into keeping me stale.
I am still afraid to take prescription pain killers and I hate doctors, but when I go see them, I listen. I am still afraid of every BPD trait you’ve given me by being my primary caregiver growing up. But I am learning to understand that, while I may have BPD traits from you, they are learned behaviors and not necessarily symptoms of BPD in me.
It’s taken years to get here, and I’m nowhere near done with my journey either. But I do my best and I keep trying. It isn’t easy and I won’t always get it right but there’s no reason to be so angry with myself. Or with you. There’s no real reason to be angry at all.
One day, I will be able to say that I am anger free. That is the end goal. I am heading in that direction, though I am not there yet.
Until then, I say
Happy Birthday, Mom